“My father?” Aldrik asked, but by the look on Daniel’s face, Vhalla wished he hadn’t.
“His death was only the beginning.” Daniel turned to Jax. “It’s just us now, brother.”
“What happened to the guard?” A dark severity overcame Jax’s words.
“Raylynn tried to keep Baldair’s body from him. To keep him from disgracing it as he did. You know how those two were. Never anything, always something. She died defending him.” Daniel hiccupped. “The Supreme King shattered both Erion’s legs, stripped, and saddled him, then sent him back to the West. There’s no way he made it in this cold.”
“And Craig?” Jax asked after a long pause.
“Craig and me . . .” He was suddenly talking too fast, the words avalanching out. “Erion told us to bend knee. That we couldn’t help anyone if we died, too. Erion was better suited as a message to the West but—Victor kept us for his monsters.”
“Monsters?” Vhalla whispered.
“Those who displeased him went into the rooms. They were exposed to the taint . . . At first they were fine, but then, their screams, their flesh. It changed, they changed. By the Mother, their screams—their screams as they ripped open skin to make rooms for talons and wings and horns and scales and—”
He was crying again.
“Enough, that’s enough,” Vhalla tried to soothe.
“Don’t touch me!” The man seemed to be on reset. Alternating between disbelief, violence, and soul crushing sadness. “I killed them. The feedings began. Blood, they need to develop a taste for blood, he said. They need fresh meat, he said.
“Craig and I, it was us. We knew it would be one of us next. Craig told me, he gave me this chance. He offered himself to that monster knowing I would be the one to feed him to it—knowing it would give me the chance to run. He screamed for me as they ate him. He screamed for me as I ran.”
Vhalla sat in numb horror. Struggling to find words in the wake of everything Daniel was pouring forth and splaying at their feet.
“If he finds me, I will be food. Or he will turn me into a monster.” Daniel looked to Jax. “Don’t give me to them. Don’t give me to his revels for his blood guard, drunk on gore and control. Don’t let his court of sorcerers have me.”
“Brother, you’re fine now,” Jax lied.
Nothing about Daniel was fine. Nothing about their situation or the world was fine.
“We will take you home,” Vhalla vowed. “We’re going East now.”
This was her fault. She had helped Victor and unleashed this force. Beyond that, if she had kept Daniel closer and had been a better friend to him, maybe he would have been with them before now. Maybe Jax would have thought to get him before charging into that dark night for the Crystal Caverns. She had made so many mistakes. How many people she loved would pay for them?
“He’ll slow us down.” Elecia couldn’t keep her thoughts to herself.
“He needs our help.” Even Fritz was surprised at her cold assessment.
“We need our own help.” Elecia firmly gripped her convictions. “He’s going to slow us down; he’s beyond halfway to madness. Not to mention, we endanger him as well, now that he knows we’re alive.”
Vhalla stopped to consider this. It was the reason they had left the Charems. But the Charems were capable of being clever. Daniel was a child lost in the woods.
“This is not up for discussion.” Daniel was their responsibility now, and Vhalla would see him home. Her mind was made up.
“What right do you have?” Elecia snorted.
“My right as your future Empress!” Vhalla shot back so fast the words nearly gave her whiplash.
Everyone held their breath, and Vhalla’s heart slowed. Their future Empress.
Aldrik didn’t say or do anything to contradict her claim.
“Fine,” Elecia huffed. The woman seemed almost satisfied at Vhalla’s proclamation, despite being on the receiving end of her ire.
“You’re really going to help me?” Daniel looked up at her.
“Why? Thank you. But why?” He shook his head violently. “I am worthless. I can’t—I am pathetic, less than a maggot. I killed my brother and survived off his death. I deserve to be a monster.” Daniel wailed, “Don’t let me become one!”
“Hush, enough,” Vhalla soothed, running her hand through his oily hair. “It’s decided. Now, put some food in you and rest. We’ll move at sunlight.”
Daniel choked down a tiny portion of their rations, the act calming him some. The rest of them used the opportunity to settle down, hoping Daniel would follow their example. He did, curling into a ball near where Vhalla was tucked against Aldrik. Jax positioned himself in the corner between them. The flutter of his eyelashes betrayed him. As long as Daniel was unstable and near her, Jax was going to sleep with one eye open.
Aldrik’s touch, his warmth, his breath, it washed away some of her nerves as Vhalla bundled under his cloak. Her eyes settled on Daniel, and Vhalla instinctually shifted closer to Aldrik, feeling him passing judgment on them both. Daniel had known almost as long as Vhalla and Aldrik had been aware that they were more than prince and subject. But this was the first time he’d truly seen them together.